Summary for the Busy Executive: Decent performances, but mostly you can do as well or better elsewhere.
This CD brings together a hodgepodge of Shostakovich more-or-less minor work with some majors thrown in just to confuse things.
Shostakovich wrote the Jazz Suites for state-sponsored jazz bands. Of the two, the first is the more conspicuously successful. It should remind listeners of Weill's Dreigroschenoper music, rather than of Louis Armstrong. In short, the Soviets, like most Europeans, at that point had little idea what jazz was. Nevertheless, the suite has Weill's sardonic sting. One encounters problems with the second suite and hesitates to judge it. Apparently, Shostakovich's own score was lost, and in 2000 or thereabouts someone decided to orchestrate the piano version. The result sounds like a Palm Court orchestra, without the bite of the first suite. Better scoring would help the work, although I can't say how much.
The Overture on Russian and Kirghiz Themes is decent enough, but forgettable. It's also quite Rimskyan, especially the opening – a kind of Kirghiz Easter Overture. I fault it mainly for an over-reliance on repetition, to the weakening of the architecture. Novorossijsk Chimes (great title!) sets a patriotic hymn. With the exception of an opening for solo celesta, anybody could have written it. It sounds like it came from a last-minute directive from the Ministry of Culture.
The Festive Overture, on the other hand, really did arise from an official commission for some sort of international conference sponsored by the Soviets, who were big on such things. I had read various writers who judged it another bit of hackwork from the comoser to keep the Party happy, but then I heard a terrific performance by Karel Ančerl and the Czech Philharmonic (still available on EMI Classics 75091). Ančerl made me believe the work was a masterpiece. Kuchar unfortunately doesn't reach that level. In his hands, it's a breathless, light score, no better and no worse than lots of others. The strings often have trouble keeping the mile-a- minute tempo Kuchar sets, and the brass lack punch and weight. This reading might make you believe the nay-sayers.
The ballet suites from The Bolt and The Golden Age (known better in this country as The Age of Gold) are among Shostakovich's strongest works. Not so The Limpid Stream, although again what we have is orchestration by another hand, since the original score was lost in the Lady Macbeth debacle. In its brief life, the ballet did enjoy an immense success before the Soviet censors expunged it from public performance and memory, so again you really hesitate to judge Shostakovich. But you can judge what you have before you, a bland glob of eminently forgettable knock-off Romanticism, perhaps by one of Tchaikovsky's or Grieg's lesser imitators. Very little in the music as we have it says "Shostakovich."
The Age of Gold and The Bolt (from 1934 and 1935, respectively) still belong to that heady era of Soviet Modernism, like Shostakovich's first symphony and piano concerto. The Bolt shows the composer as cheeky parodist, beginning with a stripped-down version of the opening to the Tchaikovsky Symphony #4. Along the way, we encounter a sassy polka interrupted by protracted orchestral razzberries, a blustery march, a gypsy tango that can't decide whether it wants to stay a tango, an "Intermezzo" that sideslips through harmonies as adroitly as Prokofieff, and a wild-eyed finale. The liner notes talk of this work as a Russian answer to Satie and Les Six, and you take the point. The Age of Gold, however, represents pure Shostakovich – particularly, the sarcastic and grotesque side. It's a terrifically-composed work, evident in the "Overture" which opens the ballet, where scurrying lines seem to enter from all directions at once, like spiraling squibs. The odd movement out is the melancholy "Adagio." Indeed, comparing the movement with its counterpart in The Limpid Stream proves instructive. It runs longer seems shorter. It wouldn't have disgraced a symphony like the composer's ninth or fifteenth. It's *composed*, whereas its brother comes across with all the forethought of one long, comfortable musical belch.
Shostakovich, like many Soviet artists, got excited over the new medium of film. He turned out quite a few film scores. For another thing, during his periods of official disgrace, films remained open to him and thus provided necessary income. Even Soviet artists needed cash, something that first struck me as a novel idea, having gotten the notion that the State's invisible hands supplied their wants and needs. The films – and the film music – vary in quality. The Gadfly, a Soviet bodice-ripper, concerns an Italian freedom-fighter underground in turn-of-the-century Vienna (oy!), with bits of A Tale of Two Cities thrown in. Obviously, it's tosh, and you wouldn't want the sarcasm of The Age of Gold to destroy the illusion that the film is worth your time. You could fairly describe the score as Shostakovich Goes Hollywood, but it's superior Hollywood, with echoes of Tchaikovsky's Swan Lake flitting through here and there. Nevertheless, it also contains a good deal of real Shostakovich, although one softened a bit and minding his manners, for the most part.
On the other hand, Hamlet, from 1964, adorns a really good film and stands among the composer's best work. Shostakovich had done incidental music for a Keystone-Kops stage production in the early thirties, pretty much in the style of The Bolt and The Age of Gold. Jorge Mester and the Louisville Orchestra recorded this some time, I believe, in the Seventies. The film score is something other, from the same harrowing sound-world of the thirteenth and fourteenth symphonies. The music is strong enough to blister paint, taking on the darkness of the film itself. The film looks like Grendel waits around the corner to tear your head off and suck your bones. By way of contrast, some lighter dances find their way into the score, but they just give you time to rest your ears and psyche before the next onslaught. Even the scenes between Hamlet and Ophelia give you the wounds to vitiate any surface tenderness or sentiment. All in all, a powerful score, fully worthy of the play. In fact, the music is so good, that you'd probably want it complete, available on Naxos 8.557446.
Kuchar and the Ukrainians do best in the better music: the first Jazz Suite, The Bolt, The Age of Gold, and Hamlet. Most of their other performances are at least decent. Nevertheless, they don't add all that much to determinedly minor work, and I say again that the Festive Overture disappoints. However, the release has two things going for it – generosity and price – that may attract some who want a triple helping of Shostakovich for less than the cost of one full-price CD.
Copyright © 2006, Steve Schwartz